I had a dream that jealousy Was a thing of the past. And we all understood It's all vanity and it won't last....
—Visions, a song by Kobe Bryant
Most mornings Kobe Bryant awakens to an ocean view. Before his feet touch the Italian marble floor, he sees the Pacific sparkling outside his bedroom window, a vast blue blanket beneath an endless sky. It's an awesome tableau, yet you suspect that when Bryant gazes at it, there might be something even more spectacular in his mind's eye. He has a way of seeing things that others don't; it's little wonder that his favorite cut from his soon-to-be-released hip-hop album, K.O.B.E., is a wistful tune entitled Visions.
Bryant's visions have been ridiculed, but that has never deterred him. When he was nine years old and living in Milan, other kids would laugh at his certainty that he would one day be an NBA star. In response he would scribble his name on scraps of paper and hand them to his doubters. "You might want to hold on to this," he would say. Bryant smiles sheepishly at the memory, but he relishes having had the last laugh. He has a way of making cockiness seem lovable, which is one of the keys to his popularity. Why shouldn't he be impressed with himself? If those kids had listened to him, they would have the autograph of a two-time NBA All-Star who, at the tender age of 21, is perhaps the best shooting guard in the league.
Some of Bryant's visions are eerie. When he was chosen 13th in the 1996 NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets, who promptly traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers for center Vlade Divac, Kobe told his father, former NBA player Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, that someday he'd play for Phil Jackson and his assistant Tex Winter—although Jackson and Winter were coaching the Chicago Bulls at the time. In February of last year Kobe phoned Winter to pick his brain about the triangle offense. Not until four months later did the Lakers sign Jackson, who took Winter and the triangle to L.A. "Freaky, isn't it?" Bryant says.
It doesn't take a visionary to see a championship in the Lakers' near future. With a 67-13 record through Sunday, Los Angeles has secured home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and it looms as the kind of prohibitive favorite that few people expected to see so soon after the dissolution of Michael Jordan's Bulls. The Lakers' brilliant year has been largely the result of Jackson's orchestration, Shaquille O'Neal's domination and Bryant's maturation. These days Bryant is far less inclined than he was as recently as a year ago to indulge in one-on-one forays, which often delighted fans but irritated teammates. Instead he integrates his flights of improvisation into the Los Angeles offense. "He doesn't make his game a personal game anymore," says L.A. forward Rick Fox. "You don't see him doing the things on the floor that used to get him in trouble and get us in trouble."
The 6'7", 210-pound Bryant has also recognized how many ways he can leave his imprint on a game. Not only does he score, but he also initiates the Lakers' attack and has developed into a fierce defensive stopper. "Kobe's a model of what a young player should aspire to be," says Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown. "Year by year he has learned and made his game more solid, and now he's not just a highlight-film guy but an accomplished NBA player."
This has been the best of Bryant's four NBA seasons by any measure: His averages of 22.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists through Sunday are career highs. It has also been the season in which he was least noticed. O'Neal is a lock for the MVP award, erasing any doubt that the Lakers are his team. He has been magnanimous in acknowledging Bryant's growth, referring to their partnership as the Combo, but it's clear that anyone who plays with O'Neal is at best the side dish to his entr�e. Moreover, while the MVP votes are going to Shaq, the style points are going to Toronto Raptors forward Vince Carter, who has passed Bryant in the line of succession to be crowned the next Jordan. Observers have looked-closely for any hint of envy from Bryant, but he has shown only one fleeting sign. During a postgame interview on NBC in February, he was asked if the fact that Carter had scored 51 points earlier in the day had spurred him to try to do something equally spectacular. A look of annoyance crossed Bryant's face. "Man," he said, "why do you guys want to ask those questions?" Then he quickly regained his calm and denied any rivalry with Carter.
Otherwise, if Bryant has been annoyed at being overshadowed by O'Neal and Carter, he has hidden it well. "It's actually perfect," he says. "I can learn every facet of the game without everyone analyzing every move I make. It's funny how much people wonder about jealousy. Am I jealous of Shaq? Is he jealous of me? Am I jealous of Vince? I'm not about that. Shaq's been unbelievable, and nobody wants to see him play this way more than I do. Vince? I'm very, very happy for Vince. I love what he's doing."
Bryant and Carter should feel more sympathy than envy for each other, because they are both doomed to be held up to Jordan's standard. Thanks to His Airness, the definition of a superstar has forever changed. It's not enough to be a perennial All-Star, an essential part of a winner, a sneaker-company pitchman. A player can't separate himself from the pack unless he is all those things and more: a corporate mogul, a player in the entertainment world, the leader of a dynasty. Bryant is doing his best to reach the bar Jordan has raised. In December he purchased half-ownership of an Italian basketball team, Olimpia Milano, and he has endorsement deals with Adidas, Mattel and Sprite, among others, that will generate more annual income than his six-year, $71 million deal with the Lakers. Bryant is also testing the waters in show business with his CD, on which he wrote or cowrote all the songs, and in a deal with Columbia to produce albums for other artists. He has plans for Kobe Family Entertainment, his film production company, to produce movies and sitcoms. When Bryant was a gangly senior at Lower Merion (Pa.) High, many observers feared he was ruining his future by deciding to skip college. In March he was on the cover of Forbes, decked out in Armani.
An NBA title would seem to complete the picture of Bryant as an all-around success, the rare young player who has found a balance between sport and celebrity. But to measure up to Jordan, Bryant will have to be the player who leads a team to several championships. He's not in a position to do that with the Lakers. It's hard to be Michael Jordan when your team needs you to be Scottie Pippen.